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Intel CEO Brian Krzanich on Rekindling the Chipmaker's Innovative Process

The self-described maker is on a mission.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich loves tinkering, whether it is tweaking gear inside the chipmaker’s plants or helping his daughters with their science projects.

He recently helped his younger daughter build a dry-ice-powered tennis ball cannon and is weighing whether to build his older daughter a bedroom alarm system that can alert her if her little sister tries to make an unauthorized entry.

Intel could have used such an early detection system a few years ago when Qualcomm, Nvidia and other ARM-based chip rivals snatched up the then-nascent mobile chip market as Intel remained focused on the slow-growth PC market.

To make up for lost time, Krzanich is now headlong into his biggest project yet: Rejiggering a company that dominated the PC era but is now trailing in a world gone mobile.

“Right now people look at Intel as the PC company,” Krzanich said in an interview on New Years Eve. “We did a very good job of becoming the PC company over the last 20 years or something. That was a battle worth fighting and winning, but the market moved.”

At CES next week, Krzanich will demonstrate why Intel should not be written off.

Rather than merely tout products ready to hit the shelves or run through a bunch of slides, Krzanich has pushed his team to get working versions of products that are several months or a year from hitting the market, including wearables, next-generation PCs and some tablets that Krzanich said would have some truly groundbreaking features.

“Wearables is wide open,” said Krzanich, who spent a career on the manufacturing side of Intel before being named operating chief in January 2012 and then CEO in May 2013. “What you will see at CES is that we are actually going to bring some very innovative wearables to the show that are developed and manufactured here.”

In conjunction with that, Intel will announce a new addition to the Quark line of chips it debuted earlier this year. While the first Quark chips found their way into heating and air conditioning systems in Europe, Krzanich said the new chip family is likely to find a home in all manner of gear from machines to wearables and more.

“Our view is that Quark can make almost everything smart,” Krzanich said. “We’ll show you some things that you would never have thought could become smart and communicate.”

Even as it looks ahead, Krzanich knows Intel cannot afford to remain a small player in the market for tablets and phones.

After years of pledging and failing to gain ground in those markets, Krzanich has set a concrete goal, promising that Intel chips will power 40 million tablets sold this year. He also announced plans to make Intel’s signature chips in outside manufacturing plants in an effort to quickly deliver a more integrated processor for phones.

Some of Intel’s tablet plans will be revealed at CES, Krzanich said.

“What you will see at CES [are] tablets that are doing some things that you didn’t think possible,” he said. “We’ll bring some new innovations in imaging, for example. That’s about all I can tell you for now.”

Phones, he admits, are likely to remain a challenging market for Intel to crack.

“The phone space is tough because it is consolidated,” he said, noting that Apple and Samsung get 80 percent of the profits from the entire handset market. “If you really want to make inroads in [smartphones], you need to win one of the two big guys.”

Beyond the individual product areas, Krzanich is also on a mission to change both the way Intel thinks and the speed at which it moves.

Krzanich points to Quark as an example of how Intel can — and must — move faster. The company announced the effort earlier this year at Maker Fair in Rome, giving away 1,500 Quark-powered circuit boards for the hobbyists to make their own gear. It was just six weeks earlier that Krzanich and his colleagues had decided to launch the product.

“The product had no name,” Krzanich said. “We didn’t have a board. We didn’t have a manufacturer. All of that got put together in six weeks.”

The CES keynote has been put together on a roughly similar time frame. Most of the products being shown off didn’t exist two months ago and won’t be ready until April at the earliest, with some as much as a year away from commercial availability.

“The velocity of innovation is starting to accelerate,” he said.

But Krzanich, who runs as a hobby, said he is always looking to go faster.

“There are still a lot of things that slow us down–how we make decisions, the number of people who feel like they have to have a say,” Krzanich said. “Those things get in our way sometimes.”

In the past, the company tended to look inward at what it was capable of and try to push the market in that direction. Rather, he said, Intel has to look at where the market is going and what will be needed several years from now and then go out and build it.

Krzanich has also made moves to curtail efforts that he didn’t think were likely to bear fruit, most notably a highly-touted effort to get into the pay TV arena.

“It is a great device and has great technology, but at the end of the day (it) is about the content you get on there,” he said. (Here are his full thoughts on the TV situation.)

Some have questioned whether an Intel insider, especially one from the manufacturing side, can make the needed changes to help Intel regain its reputation as a leader and innovator.

But Krzanich says he and his manufacturing brethren get a bad rap. Far from being boring plants run with military-like prececision, Krzanich said that Intel’s fabs have been hotbeds of innovation.

That was especially true in the early days, he recalls, when Intel made much of its own equipment, often incorporating hand-crafted tweaks to get the desired results.

“I always tell people I grew in a maker-like community because in the fab, especially in early days half the times we would build all the equipment ourselves,” Krzanich said. “As an engineer I tended to maintain my own equipment along with developing the processes for it.”

And, while things have gotten a lot less improvisational over the years, that innovative spirit has persisted even as the hand-adjusted machines have been replaced with millions of dollars worth of gear capable of etching lines hundreds of times thinner than a human hair.

“I think of it as one of the places of greatest invention,” he said of Intel’s plans. “Every two years, to keep Moore’s Law happening, you have to invent. … That’s where I grew up.”

So what keeps Krzanich up at night?

Well, speaking at CES for one thing. Krzanich said it is only now dawning on him just how many people will be listening when he speaks in Las Vegas next Monday. That’s led to some restless nights.

“It didn’t hit home until yesterday,” Krzanich said. “I think I probably slept an hour or two last night.”

Krzanich will be among the speakers at our inaugural Code Conference, May 27-29 in Palos Verdes. For details on the event, including registration info, please visit our events page.

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